Middle Passage

The genesis of the idea for ‘Colston’s Last Journey’ was in June 2020, watching Edward Colston’s statue being toppled from his pedestal in the upper part of the pedestrianised centre of Bristol, then dragged along the historic Broad Quay and dumped into the murky waters of the Bristol Floating Harbour. This event drew world-wide attention and put fire in the bellies of those movements re-assessing all sorts of histories celebrated and cosily ensconced in statuary all over the world as examples of great people (well, men…) for us plebian mortals to look up to and admire. In the feverous days that followed The Great Splash the question uppermost in Bristolian minds was, “well, um, so – what should we put on the pedestal now Colston’s not there anymore?

Et voila, a week later, London-based sculptor Mark Quinn answered that one by placing, at his own expense, a resin statue of protestor Jan Reid on the plinth. To the dismay of Bristolians and Mayor Marvin Rees, who had the statue promptly pulled down at dawn a day or so later (bit quicker there than removing the Colston statue, that one only took, oh, 15 years of protests?) The main objection seemed to be how dare some bloody Londoner come down y’ere and plonk some bloody unasked for statue on OUR town, yeh? Yeh? Pity, perhaps Bristol should not have looked a gift statue too closely in the mouth, not that it needed that – looked at closely it was a really beautiful cast of Jan Reid, it fitted the setting, her stance was proper revolutionary, it cost the city nothing &c &c.

Anyway, I then started thinking, “well, what could go on the plinth?” I haven’t been in Bristol for enough generations to be a proper Bristolian, but I have lived here and adopted the city as my home for the last 27 years, so I thought I could probably Get Away With Doing Something. But I work in sound, not in statuary. ‘Stick a boombox on the plinth endlessly re-cycling slave trade statistics.‘ I thought, ‘that’d cut the ice!‘ So I looked up the Trans-Atlantic and Intra-American slave trade databases, contacted them to ask for permission (which they gave – thank you!), then spent quite a while transcribing data on slave ships, what they did, from where they sailed, to where they bought, to where those they bought were disembarked, how many, names of Captains, gunnage etc etc. Then I got Amazon Polly (an AI voice synthesizer) to voice the transcribed stats in various ways and bounced them down as mp3 soundfiles. So far, so bad. Then I looked into the price of said boomboxes and whether it was in fact feasible to do what I wanted to do. Then I thought about the logistics (and, moreover, legalistics!), talked to a few people and thought, “mehhh…”

Next I thought, “Um – don’t put any hardware on the mean streets of Brizzle – go virtual!” So I built a soundscape in Soundcloud which could be streamed live: it was/is an audio-walk from the plinth all along the centre, past the cascade at the bottom, then along Broad Quay on the Queen Square side, across and to the other end of Pero’s Bridge, with walk directions etc, using the same material as above, plus Bristol-sourced material. That worked fine, but my press-ganged ‘focus group’ (‘impressing’, or press-ganging has a history in Bristol) told me it was too one-sided and, anyway, I should consider a much larger and more detailed and proper project requiring a considerable amount of research in order to do the topic of ‘Bristol and The Transatlantic Slave Trade’ justice. I swallowed hard (several times), spat (several times) into the Bristol Floating Harbour and bit the bullet.

4,5, no, 6 application-writing-fatigued months later I finally completed the application and submitted it to the Arts Council (with a lot of help especially from UWE, thanks, not to forget Bristol Ideas!). They approved it, so here we are: Colston’s Last Journey.